Women who don’t wear pumps can do science, too

Granted, the title of this piece is a bit cheap. Then again, so is the title of NWO’s career event for women in science: Pump Your Career (PYC). The accompanying imagery contains, naturally, feet in pumps. That is the only criticism you will read from yours truly on this initiative, however. On November 19th 2015, NWO assembled an impressive line-up of people in De Rijtuigenloods in Amersfoort, to talk about differences between women and men in the academic world; through lectures, interviews and workshops. It is a three-yearly event, co-organised by LNVH, which publishes the Monitor Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren.
The talk that struck me most, was the one by Prof. Ellemers (Utrecht University). She used empirical data to show that we are not consciously sexist, but that women are edged out of the higher ranks of academics nonetheless. That is perhaps no surprise, but her example of student evaluations is. We use student evaluations as an ‘objective’ measure, but when these are compared along gender lines, in this case male and female professors, it shows that, overall, while the former are readily seen as geniuses, the latter are judged to be strict and bossy. Such a pattern, of being more critical of women than men, has been found in the corporate world as well.] (1) Ellemers also showed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that her research on gender differences in awarding funds was the article that generated the most response she ever received — mostly from researchers questioning her methods.

The yearly Monitor Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren presented at PYC showed that the Netherlands is not doing well, compared to the rest of Europe. If the Dutch academic world keeps up in this rate, we will have an equal amount of female and male professors in 2055. In 2013, 17.1% of all professors in the Netherlands was female, the third-to-last place in the EU.
Inevitably, there is the discussion: what should and could be done? At the beginning of the day, a (male) interviewee rejected the idea of a quota for women. An hour later, Lotte Jensen of the Young Academy told us how the YA has achieved an equal division between male and female members: people who recommend members need to present one woman and one man. You might guess what happened the year KNAW dropped this prerequisite; mainly men were recommended. There is so much talent in the academic world and there are so few places available after the PhD-stage, it is hard to conceive that the reason for this drop is that there are not enough qualified women to choose from. The recommenders do not chose to bypass women, they just select men more easily; and it is not just men who do this. All this information appears to be a case of ‘kicking in open doors’, as we Dutch like to say, but it is not, as the slow rates of improvement show.

Then finally, there is the strange awareness of being in a conference hall of people who are mainly female, whereas the opposite seems more natural — conferences for computational linguists will have about the same share of women as the PYC had men. NAACL did have two female keynote speakers last year, one of which was the outstanding Lillian Lee. Such examples show me that we as academics are not lost altogether, it is just time to make more conscious decisions when it comes to diversity.